Life,  Photography

What’s Enough

Dear Bubbles:
I take a lot of pictures. I spend all this time traveling and money on gear, so I feel like I need to do more with them than to just let them sit on my hard drive. I despise camera club competitions. What else can I do with them?

Dear Margaret,
To get to your answer, start by asking yourself two more questions:

  1. Why are you a photographer (and not, let’s say, an underwater basket weaver)?
  2. Why do make photographs?

Dig deep. The answers are more than just things like “My dad gave me a camera when I was 12” or “I can’t paint” or “I don’t know, I just do.” Encourage your inner five-year old keep asking “why” until you get to your roots.

If I had to wager a guess, you, like most of the rest of us, did not get into photography because you absolutely cannot resist the feeling and sound of your finger pressing the shutter button on a cold, frosty morning. Or because your Aunt Sally tells you how great your camera must be after seeing a few images. Or because you like winning a ribbon in your camera club competition.

Don’t get me wrong. External validation doesn’t hurt. As humans, meeting psychological needs like strength, acceptance, and praise is important. But it’s short lived, and I’d bet it’s not the primary driver of why you, or anyone, are a photographer.

I’d guess that many nature photographers are such because they love, wait for it, the experience of being in nature. For the privilege of wandering around a lake at sunrise and hearing the haunting call of a loon. To dance in the rain and smell the creosote wood afterwards. To feel the thundering vibration under your feet when ocean waves crash into land. To explore the world around us in more nuanced ways. It’s wanting to be a part of the sheer beauty and rawness of it all that get us out there in the first place and enriches our lives in indefinable ways.

When I eventually decide to pick up my camera—and it should be noted here that oftentimes while on a hike or paddle, I do not make a single photograph—I make a frame to show my appreciation for the extraordinary in the ordinary and the extra in the extraordinary. To elevate certain moments where I felt bliss, awe, wonder, something, anything I don’t want to forget—and I wish for others to experience, especially those who aren’t or can’t be with me. To express notions and ideas I cannot easily put into words or in other artistic forms. To celebrate my connections with a world I know I’ll never be able to fully understand.

Are you nodding your head in agreement to all this? If so, I want, no need, you to hear this next sentiment loud and clear, so I’m going to bold it, italicize it, and underline it:

That’s enough.

I’ll even repeat it for the people sitting in the back: That’s enough.

The fulfillment you feel when photographing is reason enough to spend all the time traveling and money on gear that you do. It’s enough for you to get on a plane to [insert your favorite country place here] because you want to see that landscape. It’s enough for you to buy a 17th external hard drive. It’s enough for you to do whatever you need to do to do the things that bring you joy.

Adopting an autotelic personality means you chose to do things for their own sake with no expectation of any end goal or result. Knowing why you do what you do and what you want gives you the opportunity chose how to invest your time, money, and energy in ways that are most important and meaningful to you, and you alone.

Besides, it’s impossible to put a price on the value of nature and your experience in it. Trying to compare intangible worth with tangible dollars is a waste of your time. If a dollar-to-dollar measure is what you need to motivate you, you’d likely never see or do anything outside–consumerism would win every time.

Don’t let it. Change the game if you have to. Focus on what truly matters to you. If you enjoy the process of making your images, whether you make one or a gazillion, you don’t need to do a damn thing with any of them.

Who set the expectation that we had to share what we created? I sure didn’t get that memo.

Who said you had to justify the cost of a lens or a filter to create your art through sharing your art? Newsflash! You don’t. You only need to consult your budget.

What awful things will happen if you let your images rot on your 17th external hard drive? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

If you feel guilty, like you “have to” or “should” share your images, stop here and challenge those notions. Where are those expectations coming from? For additional insight and inspiration, you may wish to read about Vivian Maier’s story in an earlier Dear Bubbles post “If No One Saw Your Photos:”

If you feel some form of intrinsic value might come from sharing your images with the world, perfect. Read on.

My friend and fellow photographer Guy Tal and I agreed during a banter over a campfire some years ago that a significant percentage of the value of a photograph has already been achieved once you press the shutter. He suggested that he achieved about 90% of the value. For me, I think it’s more around 75%.

The remaining 25% value I see comes from when I use my images (and writings) to help inspire others to get outside, to have confidence in expressing themselves visually, and to lead meaningful lives in their own way. A part of me wants my images to do something more than collect dust on a hard drive. That said, I only share about 3% of the images I make publicly through magazine publications, calendars, social media sharing, in presentations, etc.

While I obviously appreciate when people enjoy my images (and the financial return of publication), it’s not why I do what I do. I make photographs because a moment meant something to me first. If my photographs mean something to other people afterwards, it’s just whipped cream on the pie. And boy, you know how I love pie, with or without whipped cream.

So, Margaret and all, what do you want to do with your images? If you wish to share your photos, but aren’t interested in selling them, here are some ideas:

  • Print them and decorate your house with them
  • If wall space is an issue, put together an image portfolio and display it on a digital frame
  • Share digital versions on social media
  • Start a photo-based blog or newsletter
  • Put together a slideshow for presentation to schools, memory care facilities, retirement homes, etc.
  • Print them and put in a scrapbook or an album (look for acid-free paper to prevent deterioration of the prints over time)
  • Create a photo book around a theme or time frame (e.g. a year of your favorite work) via outlets like Blurb and Shutterfly
  • Host an open studio event at your home to show your printed work from your last trip
  • Create photo-based products as gifts for others (like puzzles and mousepads)
  • Make photo greetings cards to send as correspondence and on special occasions
PHOTO: I turned this photograph into a puzzle as a gift to a friend to further an inside joke between us. The amount of joy and laughter I got out of doing so was–and still is–immeasurable…even if my friend never puts this puzzle together.

Yes, many of these ideas mean more time and more money. If you enjoy the doing of these things, it’s time and money well spent. Bonus if others eventually find joy in it too. What better to invest in than making yourself happy, maybe learning something new, and making the world a better, brighter, and more beautiful place at the same time? (OK, maybe invest in a slice of pie with whipped cream…)

If you wish to sell your work, there are additional possibilities like, but not limited to:

  • Magazines
  • Stock companies (calendars, postcards, souvenirs, and commercial advertising)
  • Online print sales via your own website or third party like Fine Art America and Smugmug
  • Fine art shows
  • Photo books

Since you mentioned it, camera club competitions are a good way to appreciate other people’s work, to get new ideas for our own, and to hear other people’s opinions on our photographs. Although judges are typically guided by a set of specific rules, the process is still subjective. And for some who participate, frustrating. Besides not wanting to conform to those rules for their work, sometimes the photographer isn’t given much feedback beyond a number or score. Unless the competition enables an active discussion between the photographer’s intent and execution and the judges’ preferences, I believe image critiques yield more value in the learning than contests.

But that’s what I value. You get to decide what you value. And we all do not need to have the same answers. In fact, if we did, photography and life would be pretty boring. Choose your own path deliberately and wisely based on your own interests and desires.

Regardless of your decision now, the opportunity to share your work isn’t going away. You can always change your mind later. I’d recommend checking in with yourself on a frequent basis (and not just when you feel like you’re in an existential crisis mode). Ask yourself why you are a photographer, why do you make photographs, why are you doing what you’re doing, what value you’re getting out of whatever you’re doing, and what expectations you are carrying with you unnecessarily. The answers can and will change over time as you develop and progress.

And, for me, that’s one of the best reasons to be a photographer and to make photographs, regardless of whether anyone sees the photographs ever: to learn and grow as a human.

Be well, be wild,

Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Looking for inspiration? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at [email protected] to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.

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  • Toni Francis

    I love your inspiring words of wisdom. You have inspired me to continue to look through my camera lens for the sheer joy of the next adventure! I have made photo books of my adventures and love to revisit the memories!